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Child imprisonment rose rapidly during the 1990s and early part of this century, largely because increasing numbers of children were prosecuted over that period in spite of the falls in youth crime. More recently, in line with the rediscovery of diversion, levels of incarceration have declined: the child custodial population contracted by two-thirds between November 2006 and November 2015 (Ministry of Justice 2015c).

Children refused bail are, by default, remanded to nonsecure local authority accommodation, but can be deprived of their liberty where the additional criteria for ‘youth detention accommodation’ (YDA) are satisfied. YDA is available where the child is aged 12 years or older, the offense is violent or sexual in nature, and is punishable in the case of an adult with a 14-year term of imprisonment (Hart 2012). The standard custodial sentence in the youth court is the detention and training order, available, for between 4 and 24 months, where the offending is so serious that other penalties cannot be justified. Half of the order is by default served in detention, although there is facility for early or late release, with the sentence completed in the community under compulsory YOT supervision. Where children are tried for ‘grave crimes’ in the crown court, the maximum penalty is identical to that for adults convicted of equivalent offenses (Bateman 2015a).

Since 2000, children have been imprisoned in a discrete under-18 estate consisting of three types of establishment that vary in size and ethos:

  • • Young offender institutions (YOIs): large-scale children’s prisons, some of which have capacity of more than 300, for boys aged 15-17 years
  • • Secure training centers (STCs): privately managed custodial establishments with a capacity of up to 80 boys and girls aged 12-17 years
  • • Secure children’s homes (SCHs): smaller child care establishments, the largest of which accommodates 40 children with considerably higher staff-to-child ratios. Such units can also accommodate children deprived of their liberty on welfare grounds.

Placement is determined on the basis of gender, age, vulnerability, proximity to home area, and availability. In practice, cost is also a significant variable: a place for a child in an SCH costs more than three times that in a YOI. It is perhaps unsurprising that almost 70 % of imprisoned children are detained in the latter institutions while the former accommodate just 11 % (Ministry of Justice 2015c).

There have been considerable concerns over the treatment of children in custody, YOIs in particular, and there have been sharp rises in the level of violence within the secure estate in recent years as the custodial population has contracted (Bateman 2015a). Recent research conducted by the Children’s Commissioner for England established that children in YOIs were likely to spend three times as long in isolation as their counterparts in SCHs and have significantly less access to education and other aspects of the standard regime as consequence. The Commissioner has accordingly called for the abolition of YOIs (Children’s Commissioner for England 2015). Inspections have confirmed such concerns, noting that, at Feltham YOI, 38 % of detainees were locked up when they should be taking part in core activities (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2015).

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